Night is my favorite time in Arnhem, a Dutch city along the Rhine 40 miles west of the German border. I’d go on exhaustive excursions for days on end in a wide radius around the city, visiting the places of Audrey’s youth or key German sites; I’d interview people who lived through the war and go on guided battlefield tours, and there’d be miles of walking. Then back at Hotel Haarhuis in the heart of Arnhem, I’d want to go for one last walk along the Utrechtseweg, the city quiet, its ghosts just beginning to stir.
I like to take late-night walks up to the old headquarters building of the SD, the German intelligence service, also known as the SS. If you were Dutch and taken here during the war, you knew you were about to be tortured. It might or might not be your last day on earth. SD headquarters sits six or seven minutes from the Haarhuis by foot, but it’s a piece of ground loaded with history. That little slice of street was the farthest the relief column made it in an effort to relieve Frost at the bridge during the battle of Arnhem. Fighting on this street was desperate on 18 September 1944. There’s a photograph I always think about as I stroll the sidewalk of Utrechtseweg—it shows dead British paratroopers lying right where I walk, shot down in their desperate attempt to make it onto the bridge.
Arnhem is a modern, rebuilt city, but a very old one. If you know where to look (and I do thanks to my friend Robert Voskuil), there are scars of battle everywhere. The battle of Arnhem, also known as the “Bridge Too Far” battle, was as ferocious as D-Day but not fought on wide-open beaches. It was fought in a city built on the wealth of the Dutch East Indies—businessmen would make their fortune in the east and bring it back to Arnhem and neighboring Oosterbeek and retire there. The German general staff knew the Arnhem and Oosterbeek area from pre-war days when it had served as a resort destination.
This was Audrey Hepburn’s home. Her grandfather, former mayor of Arnhem and governor of Suriname, owned a villa in Oosterbeek before moving to rented rooms in a castle in Arnhem. Because he’d lived as a civil servant, Baron Aarnoud van Heemstra hadn’t accumulated great wealth in his career and lived humbly so he could distribute his funds among six children, including Ella, Audrey’s mother. From Arnhem the baron moved to the equally wealthy village of Velp and his small, rented Villa Beukenhof became Audrey’s vantage point for the battle of Arnhem.
I was astonished in 2015 when I stumbled upon the Audrey-in-Arnhem story and realized nobody had done it as a book. Huh? How was this possible? Oh, said her biographers, she was too young to have experienced anything. She wasn’t in any battles. She lived quietly and danced her way through the war.
Word to the wise: Nobody in Europe lived quietly through that war. There had to be a story, and brother what a story it turned out to be.
In his review of Dutch Girl, John McElwee of Greenbriar Picture Shows Blogspot said of his reading experience, “You actually wonder if Audrey will make it through such harrowing ordeal, despite evidence of beloved film roles she did later….” Even pre-release, I’ve heard this theme several times: You the reader know intellectually that she’s going to live, but the book’s still a page-turner because you can’t imagine how she’s going to live.
The violence of war first hit Audrey full force in 1942. In 1944 came the paratroopers, then bombings, strafings, V1s, and finally tanks and machine guns. You look at Princess Ann, you look at Holly Golightly, and in that serene and innocent face you see no hint of a girl in a blood-stained dress, a girl who had to show her Ausweis just to be permitted to go to shops at the end of her street.
The trick is, you had to go poking around in the Netherlands to learn these things. You had to bump into the ghosts. It was really the job of some Dutch author after Audrey’s death to root out the war story when so many were still alive who had lived it with her. Up until her passing no one dared because Audrey felt she had a lot to hide about her mother Ella, as explored by the Daily Mail this week. Then the story sat all these years, waiting.
In the next installment I’d like to talk about the experience of visiting Audrey’s world, traveling back in time.